x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Greenland expedition team ready for last push

Adrian Hayes can almost taste the milkshake in wait at the end of an epic trek - but he and his colleagues still face treacherous terrain.

Adrian Hayes flanked by his teammates Devon McMiarmid, left, and Derek Crowe. The team hopes to reach its destination by Saturday or Sunday.
Adrian Hayes flanked by his teammates Devon McMiarmid, left, and Derek Crowe. The team hopes to reach its destination by Saturday or Sunday.

He is so close to the end that he can almost taste the chocolate milk shake that he craves. But with more than 4,000km down and only 90km to go, Adrian Hayes knows that he and his two teammates must stay focused - not least because Greenland's beautiful, but frequently treacherous terrain has one final test in store for them.

When they set out on May 20, Hayes, a Dubai-based Briton, and the Canadians Devon McDiarmid and Derek Crowe estimated that their journey from the south to the north of Greenland - using the power of the wind to kite-ski and haul 150kg sledges along a route never previously attempted - could take anything from 40 to 65 days. Now, because of variable winds that have often robbed them of the rapid mobility of their kites, and left them plodding instead of skiing across the ice cap, it is clear that the upper estimate was the best one - and then some.

They began rationing on day 49 and it has paid off; they have just enough food and plenty of fuel essential for turning ice into water - for the final few days. Day 64 began yesterday without a breath of wind, but Hayes was stoical. They had enjoyed a breeze on Tuesday, but no wind is forecast for the next few days. "We had a last hurrah, fanfares blaring, yesterday, and did as much as we could," he said, speaking by satellite telephone as the team prepared for the day's march.

"I'm getting text messages saying 'We're just waiting for the big news, we can't wait', but it's going to take us a while yet." Unforeseen disasters notwithstanding, they will make it. "Right now, whatever happens, we will manage to haul, crawl or tow to the finish, so I think we'll be OK," said Hayes, 46, strapping his feet to ward off blisters on the march ahead. They had just finished breakfast: "Just for a change we've had a hot cereal, which we've had every day for 65 days." He had, he said, "quite liked" the diet of freeze-dried food, but that "nice chocolate milkshake" was looming ever larger in his thoughts.

They have not quite earned it yet: "I hate to make predictions on when it's going to be. If we've got no wind we've got three days of walking to get to the moraine, and probably a day descending that, so it looks like four more days. I think we're looking at Saturday. It's not all over yet." Without any wind to propel them - they are hoping that the proximity of the coast will whip up a local blow out of nowhere - the team face three days slogging it out on foot.

Then they face the beginning of the last major hurdle. Between them and the finishing line at the small town of Qaanaaq on Greenland's north-west coast lies the moraine - a stretch of glacier-strewn rocks and rubble. The moraine will test both men and equipment. "There are a few options to get into Qaanaaq," said Hayes. "It's on a little peninsula and we're heading for a fjord. We have to head down a spur of the glacier and then come to a fairly steep rock slope. It's not too far, about 10km, but quite steep and we've got to get our kit down.

"We've got to haul our sledges over all these rocks and boulders - they are going to be pretty trashed by the time we get down this thing." Now, at their weakest point, is when the men must summon maximum concentration. The moraine will also test weary muscles, as Hayes discovered on a previous expedition, at the other end of the world. "When we get in the rocks it is going to be interesting as we found out when we went to the South Pole," he said.

"We skied and pulled sledges for two months, really physical activity, but we got to the US Air Force base and climbed the steps and could manage only about five before we collapsed. "You are fit for what you've been doing and we're going to be suddenly descending rocks, something completely different on your legs after two months." So far, the toughest and most dangerous terrain encountered on the Greenland trip was the descent of the glacier to the Arctic coast at the JP Kocks Fjord, which they reached on July 4, a day that Hayes described on his blog as "undoubtedly the most tricky and dangerous day of our expedition by far".

The three men spent a night falling and wading through glacial meltwater. At one point Hayes almost lost a ski under the ice. Later, wet through and freezing cold, they emerged into "one jumbled horizontal crevasse-ridden mess". Yet arriving at the most northerly point of their journey was also its highlight. "It was one of the most awesome places I've ever been - a frozen paradise, absolutely beautiful, canyons, frozen water, just a totally untouched paradise," said Hayes.

"So few people have ever seen that sight - we think probably fewer than five people in history, and that makes it pretty special." After two months on the go, Hayes has still not had enough of the spectacular landscape, which at this time of year is bathed in sunlight 24 hours a day. "There are conflicting emotions at the end," he said. "To me, there's a little bit of sadness; you're coming off the icecap, it's been home. When you get there it all suddenly becomes too much, you've got people all around you and there's emotional overload."

Although the men are in a hurry to finish, they are making the most of their last few days in the wilderness. "The light, the difference between the night and day, although it is always light, is pretty spectacular, with the clouds, limitless visibility. There's not much to see - the white icecap and the blue sky - but it's quite awesome, to be honest. "Colours, trees and greenery and buildings is all going to be a bit of a shock".

But the "real" world is already intruding. There is only one flight out of Qaanaaq every week "and we took the chance of booking that for Monday. That gives us a deadline to get there by Sunday." If they miss that, the next flight is fully booked and they face a wait of two weeks before they can go home. "A day would be nice to chill out and have a shower and a bit of food, but we don't want to spend too long there, obviously. Certainly not two weeks," said Hayes.

From Qaanaaq, the team will fly via the Greenland capital, Nuuk, where they will spend the night, to Denmark, where they will be reunited with members of their support team in Copenhagen. After a few days, they will each go their separate ways. But Hayes is already planning his next expedition, which will begin soon after he arrives in the UK. "It's a hike across the New Forest, in shorts and polo shirt, with no polar clothing and no sledge."

jgornall@thenational.ae